“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know that just ain’t so that gets you into trouble.”
– Pitcher Satchel Paige
The treacherous danger of unfounded certainty
Author, actor and humorist John Hodgman provided some wry and thoughtful perspectives on this idea of unfounded certainty in a magazine article:
“What most people and societies become when they believe they know everything: incurious, self-satisfied, flabby, and prone to wearing tunics and lounging on grassy lawns…
“While there may be legitimate, eternal mysteries out there that are beyond our comprehension, history, in fact, shows us that if we do ask questions, we are likely to find answers eventually – which is perhaps more frightening than ignorance…
“Being curious is the bravest human act, aside from skydiving.”
What We Don’t Know, by John Hodgman, Wired magazine, Feb 2007.
He is the author of multiple books including The Areas of My Expertise.
Photo from Facebook/John Hodgman.
The distorted thinking that accompanies certainty
We shut ourselves off and limit our potential when we are certain we know what we really don’t – or maybe even can’t – know with certainty.
We even make things up to make sense of life, and we confabulate, and (maybe unconsciously) “fill in gaps in memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts.”
[Image above from tumblr.com/tagged/vanderlylegeek]
Hoarding distorted ideas can be deeply self-limiting
This is something I discuss in my article Negative self-talk.
For example, in her book on “recovering your creative self” – “The Artist’s Way” – Julia Cameron writes about “core negative beliefs” and notes as an example that a cliche such as “artists are promiscuous” can have destructive variations for a woman thinking of pursuing life as an artist: “No man will ever love you if you are an artist. Artists are either celibate or gay.”
That relates to the cognitive therapy idea of distorted thinking, including such types as all-or-none thinking, global thinking, either-or thinking.
James Krehbiel notes in his article Why Does Cognitive Therapy Work? that these kinds of cognitive distortions “are the lenses out of which many people view the world. Distorted thinking leads to misperceptions about feelings, thoughts and events… maladaptive beliefs and values that create self-defeating behavior.”
But thinking is intimately allied with mood, and to think in a way that is not limiting, but helpful, productive, and realistic is not a matter of what is typically labeled “positive thinking” but rather having awareness and cognition with the clarity and discipline we need to avoid being “incurious and self-satisfied” that Hodgman notes.
As Iris Murdoch said, “Philosophy involves seeing the absolute oddity of what is familiar and trying to formulate really probing questions about it.”
Normal cognition and metacognition
In his Pick the Brain blog post Learn to Understand Your Own Intelligence, John Wesley notes:
“There are two types of cognition. The first is normal cognition. This is the ability to retrieve knowledge from memory. When you are asked a question on a test and produce an answer, that’s a display of cognitive ability.
“The second type of cognition is metacognition; the ability to know whether or not you know… Unless you’re taking a test or playing Jeopardy, metacognition is more important to success than cognition.”
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